quote of the week: “rail is only part of the equation”


Trains would be just one layer of a comprehensive, multi-modal network that greatly enhances both neighborhood and regional accessibility for people all across the [Los Angeles] region. …

A singular focus on rail would divide the region into two: neighborhoods with rail and neighborhoods without. Such a future would perpetuate income inequality as housing costs rise near stations and station areas would be choked with traffic congestion. …

Getting our existing buses out of traffic is the quickest, most cost-effective means to bring high-quality transit to the greatest number of Angelenos.

Juan Matute, UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies
from a discussion called "Trains are Not the Silver Bullet"
 at ZocaloPublicSquare

This is from a collection of commentary about the the role of rail in the larger context of transit investment strategies.  Read the whole thing!






8 Responses to quote of the week: “rail is only part of the equation”

  1. valar84 October 31, 2014 at 10:39 pm #

    I think that is shortsighted. A rational transport policy includes land use and would involve building rail lines then upzoning significantly the area around each station to lead to very high density developments around each, with bus systems being reoriented to act as feeders. Rail stations only lead to very high housing prices if you ignore the market price signals and restrict density much below demand. The result of course would be very little bus ridership, which is normal. High local bus mode share is not a good sign, it shows poor urban planning and an automobile-centered transport infrastructure (the same things buses need to be fast and comfortable: wide, straight, uncongested roads, is what makes cars fast and dangerous). In a well-designed city, walking and biking mode shares are high, not bus mode shares, and rail is there for long-distance trips.
    Large Japanese cities (Tokyo, Osaka, etc…) are a clear example of that, bus mode share is extremely low, but rail ridership and active transport (walking and biking) are all very high.
    The biggest problem with local buses is that:
    1- For trips under half a mile in urban areas, no matter how frequent the bus, walking is faster, so in a well-designed neighborhood, local trips are better served by walking than by buses (except for the mobility impaired).
    2- If you build good bike infrastructure, local buses become even more irrelevant (even on bus lanes) as bikes are just as fast as buses on urban streets and they have no waiting time. Hence in many Dutch cities without rapid transit, the bike mode share is sky high, the transit mode share is no higher than in the US (for example, Eindhoven, 40% of trips are made on bikes, 13% on foot… and only 5% on transit). Buses are faster in sprawling suburbia, but that just illustrates the main point. I have a feeling that in most cases in urban areas, if you have a choice between making bus lanes or bike lanes and you can’t have both… bike lanes are probably the better investment.
    Making bus service better is needed as a mitigating measure to bad urban developments to give mobility in car-oriented areas to people without cars, however, the real solution is to break that style of development, and high-capacity rail lines are essential there, because of their ability to connect dense, walkable nodes together, to reshape cities (see the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington).

  2. threestationsquare November 1, 2014 at 12:02 am #

    Buses with fully dedicated lanes and uncompromised signal priority are a great thing, both providing a quick and cheap way to create faster-than-driving transit, and helping transit and urbanism as a whole by taking space away from cars. Unfortunately such bus systems are very rare in the US, and seem to be politically harder achieve than just building rail. A mixed-traffic bus, like a mixed-traffic streetcar, is almost useless for most people, especially as Uber and Lyft are bringing taxi service within reach of the middle class.
    At the personal level there’s no reason for someone who can afford a shared taxi to take mixed-traffic surface transit, but as more people make that choice traffic will get worse leaving everyone (including the bus riders) worse off. Congestion pricing (high enough to put LyftLine/UberPool prices out of reach of most riders, which is essentially the role taxi medallions played in the past) is another solution but also politically very difficult. The political situation will only get worse if app-based taxis continue to divert higher-income riders from local transit, especially if the latter is increasingly seen as a form of welfare (for people who might be better off with a cash payment) rather than a way for choice riders to avoid the hassles of driving and parking themselves.
    The best (and probably most feasible) way to avoid this tragedy of the commons is to invest in transit that provides total trip times competitive with cars. Buses certainly have a potential role in this. But status quo mixed-traffic bus systems (even with somewhat improved frequency and bits of poorly-enforced dedicated lane where it’s easy) aren’t going to cut it.

  3. Matthew November 2, 2014 at 9:45 am #

    If you could start from scratch, valar, I think you’re right. But LA is already a city with huge roadways that could easily be repurposed for bus lanes. Those huge roadways are there to stay, for better or for worse.
    In addition, underground rail is not always feasible. Underground anything may be too expensive to be practical. I don’t anticipate there will ever be much additional subway building in Boston, for instance, barring some incredible technological breakthrough in tunneling through a morass of old utilities and slippery soil. The Big Dig was the exception that proved the rule. Surface transit will be the way forward, whether it be improved buses or trams, and a big upgrade to bike infrastructure will be needed as well.

  4. Carl November 3, 2014 at 7:05 am #

    “Getting our existing buses out of traffic is the quickest, most cost-effective means to bring high-quality transit to the greatest number of Angelenos.”
    This argument is almost always used by people seeking to minimize the capital investment in dedicated transit infrastructure.
    Politically – I have not seen any U.S. city take existing traffic lanes and make them quality reliable bus transit infrastructure. Even LA’s touted Rapids virtually always are stuck in congested lanes. The closest we have come is in NYC where they have striped/colored some bus lanes like on 34th St and 1st/2nd Aves – the latter are part time only, and the lanes are virtually always blocked by stopped police cars, delivery vehicles, and vehicles waiting for pedestrians to make a right turn.
    Even where LA has built some new bus infrastructure, it hasn’t performed all that well. The Harbor transit way is massively underused, and can still get clogged at points. The Orange Line has proven that busway capacity reaches low capacity limits.
    I agree with the earlier commenter that you need to match rail with land use, and you cannot make transit access a political statement – like everyone needs to be equal. Density and topography simply make that impractical. Create high capacity reliable infrastructure and then focus development there.
    Mode isn’t the point, it’s dedicated reliable infrastructure. Mode should be picked later. But don’t accept bus is like rail but cheaper, and then make it cheaper and cheaper and it’s no longer reliable.

  5. Jonah November 3, 2014 at 1:35 pm #

    For Carl – http://www.metro.net/projects/wilshire/

  6. Bolwerk November 3, 2014 at 7:03 pm #

    I don’t understand the point here. A lot of people may wish for more rail over more buses, which I admit maybe should tell you something, but regardless of that rail isn’t exactly being overbuilt in the USA. There is little threat of rail replacing projects that should be buses.
    Also, I don’t get the obsession with density. Density where rail isn’t going to attract lots of riders is already density where buses aren’t going to attract many riders. It may well be that buses are acceptable at low densities where rail is not, but already those densities are far from ideal for transit.

  7. Matt J. November 4, 2014 at 9:30 am #

    While a singular focus on rail I think most would agree is not the optimal solution, I think in the US there has been too much focus on buses as the solution. The key to a successful transit system is that a) it move people faster than a car and b) it attract people from all walks of life (in order to create long term support for operating “losses”). Rail has the advantage meeting both of these objectives plus has the advantage of conveying a permanence to the system. With buses you don’t know if today it will support my neighborhood and tomorrow it wont. With rail you know that the powers that be will continue to run the trains, and therefore I can buy a house / apartment knowing that they wont take the train away.

  8. threestationsquare November 6, 2014 at 7:04 am #

    @Matt J: I don’t think you can be so confident that “they won’t take the train away”. Obviously rail abandonments were common in the mid-20th century. More recently, Philadelphia shut down some of its streetcar lines in 1992, Seattle ended its waterfront streetcar in 2005, Syracuse’s ill-conceived “OnTrack” DMU line ran from 1994 to 2007, and Cleveland’s waterfront light rail extension ran weekends-only for several years in the 2000s (though weekday service has now been restored). Even more common are drastic cuts to frequency; in recent years Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and San Jose have all cut some branches to half-hourly off-peak service or worse, when these initially opened with more useful frequencies.
    The best way to be confident that transit won’t go away is to live in a neighbourhood that couldn’t survive without it, ensuring strong economic and political support.

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